9/11 responders and other workers pay it forward as volunteers

Bill Keegan spent nine months at what would become known as "the pile" at Ground Zero after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I'm proud. I'm proud of the work we did that laid the foundation for this to come back the way it is," Keegan said. "It's about resilience. It's about us fighting back." 

He was a Port Authority police lieutenant in charge of rescue and recovery teams on the overnight shift six days a week. 

"For nine months, we brought comfort to people who were looking to us to bring them comfort," he said, "to bring them some remains or personal effect."

A tremendous amount of credit goes to thousands of unsung heroes, Keegan added.

"When cops and firemen looked at that 1.8 million tons of twisted steel, we really didn't know what to do after the second, third, fourth day," Keegan said. "It was the construction companies. It was the tradespeople who came in and started making sense of this entire site."

Keegan's experience at Ground Zero inspired him to create HEART 9/11, a volunteer organization that responds to natural disasters. A team of volunteers just got back from Louisiana where they helped rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Ida.

"Bringing comfort to others, doing the job that we're so skilled at makes us feel better," he said.

HEART 9/11 is comprised of retired and active police officers, firefighters, laborers, electricians, sheet metal workers, ironworkers, and carpenters. 

"We do this because thousands of people came to New York City in our time of need after the 9/11 attacks," volunteer Jeremy Delgado, of New York City Building Trades, said. "Now it's our time to give back to others."

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HEART 9/11 deployed to Houston after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. About one month later, the organization was helping rebuild Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The group also responded to Haiti following the earthquake in 2010. 

"It feels purposeful. It feels like I'm affecting change," volunteer Adrian Caban, of FDNY Engine Company 1, said. "I'm doing something that really matters."

Lessons learned from 9/11: We are not paralyzed. We rise again.

"When we bring comfort to others with no expectations of anything in return, it really can fill us with a spirit, a sort of grace," Keegan said. "You can see a sense of hope — if you could recover from 9/11, then maybe I can recover from this." 

To mark the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, HEART 9/11 has organized the March of the 9/11 Recovery Workers, which takes place Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, at 7:30 a.m. The group will march from North Moore Street and Greenwich Street to the Oculus Plaza. To either join the march or donate, go to 20for20give.org.


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